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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Fantasy Baseball Aficionados Hit a Home Run at U.S. Supreme Court

OK. I'll admit it. I play Rotisserie Baseball. I have for more than a dozen years. My friends and I play for small stakes. It's all about pride. For those who are uninitiated, Fantasy Sports (of which Rotisserie Baseball is an example) involve participants assembling portfolios of athletes from real teams, either through a draft or auction (with salary cap). Various stats are assembled for each player and a participant's portfolio is evaluated in terms of how well his players perform.

In the olden days, it was extremely tedious to keep track of a league's standings, because one had to assemble and calculate the stats by hand, usually from USA Today or another reliable publication. The internet changed all that. Services sprung up all over the place to calculate stats for leagues at a relatively modest cost. For instance, our league pays about $10 per team for a year's worth of stats. The websites are truly remarkable. The inputting of rosters and transactions is simple and the array of stats one can peruse and customize is staggering.

This has become big business. So big, in fact, that Major League Baseball decided they didn't want anyone to be in this business without cutting them in on the profits. That's right, MLB sued on the grounds that the league held exclusive rights not only to their players, merchandise and broadcasts, but also their players' statistics, names and likenesses, as well. So, even though any guy with a calculator could comb through the paper and assemble his own stats, he wasn't allowed to pay someone to do it for him. At least, that was the position staked out by Major League Baseball.

A bunch of stats companies caved and started paying a licensing fee to MLB. A few, however, refused and took MLB to court. Judges at all levels refused to grant ownership of stats to MLB, contending that they were squarely in the public domain. Basically, you can't own history. This was clearly the right call, and this week, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case, leaving the appeals court ruling intact. MLB lost and all us nerdy fantasy sports geeks can rejoice.

Here's why I think this was a no-brainer. It's basically a slippery slope argument.

If a professional sports league were to own the stats of its games, it would, essentially, own also the exclusive use of the results of such games. As such, sports books would immediately become illegal, without paying a franchising fee. A casino could not collect or pay on a wager which relied on the outcome of a sporting event. A radio or television station could not report the results of the local teams' games because they would not own the rights to those results. Similarly, newspapers and website would have no right to publish results.

A bar could not host a victory party because it would be predicated on a victory to which it had no rights.

It would be very difficult, legally, to limit the results to sporting events. Could Angelina Jolie prevent a newspaper from publishing reports of her most recent adoption without paying her a licensing fee? Could a movie studio preclude a theater chain from reporting box office receipts for the studio's films?

Thank goodness this lawsuit is history! (Just don't try reporting on it without paying a licensing fee to the U.S. Supreme Court).

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